There has been a lot of speculation, over recent months, about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted America’s teens. Parents, teachers, counselors and health professionals have all stepped up to offer their opinions.
Now, teens want the adults in their lives to listen.
In a national survey of more than 1,000 students ages 13-18, the nonprofit organization GENYOUth was able to gain a real-time snapshot of how America’s teens are feeling as they enter a summer warped by closures, social distancing and uncertainty. Through the survey, the teens also offered insight on what they need most from the adults in their lives to help them cope.
“Until now, we have not heard directly from students,” Alexis Glick, CEO of GENYOUth, said in a news release. “On issues of national importance – be it the pandemic, economic instability, hunger and food insecurity, or race and inequality – conversations about how best to help our nation’s youth need to start with them. They have a powerful voice and they need to be heard.”
The disruptions and distress teens are feeling
Responding to the survey, an overwhelming 62 percent of teens said they are feeling a huge impact in terms of missing special moments in their lives, such as proms, dances, concerts and graduation. Sixty-one percent explained they’ve been impacted by having their summer plans canceled, including vacations, camps and athletics. Fifty-eight percent said that staying close to friends has been harder. And 50 percent are frustrated that they’ve lost freedom and control in their lives.
“Because of this pandemic, many great and important experiences and events that I was looking forward to have been taken from me,” Viren, a rising high school senior from New Jersey, said in the news release.
“I do not get to be with many of my friends, who are seniors and will be leaving me in a few short months. Who knows if this virus will be gone in time for me to get time with them? It’s like every day I hear some new bad news,” he added.
On top of the short-term disruptions, like losing prom and summer days at the pool with friends, many teens voiced concerns about the long-term impact.
With thousands of Americans losing their jobs amid the pandemic, more than one in four of the teens surveyed feel that their families’ well-being, including their ability to afford expenses like food and housing, has been directly impacted. And 83 percent of these respondents reported feeling distressed about their families’ current position.
The numbers are even higher for traditionally underserved demographics and those from households making less than $35,000 a year. Thirty-one percent of Black teens, 38 percent of Hispanic teens and 35 percent of low-income teens reported that the pandemic has had a “huge impact” on their families’ well-being.
Naturally, many teens who are worried about their families’ financial status feel the need to start working. But job prospects are also a big concern, as 44 percent of all teens surveyed and 53 percent of the high school juniors and seniors surveyed are feeling a huge impact on their ability to get or keep paid work.
Students are also very concerned about their educational futures amid the many school closures and disruptions to the college admissions process.
In total, 31 percent of the students polled said that their educational futures have been disrupted by COVID-19. That percentage is much higher when considering only upperclassmen and members of ethnic groups such as Hispanic students and Asian American students. In total, 42 percent of college-minded upperclassmen, 42 percent of Hispanic teens and 39 percent of Asian American teens voiced their concerns about their educational futures.
Students are also distraught over the loss of sports participation. An overwhelming 54.5 percent of all teens and 63 percent of low-income teens feel that their athletic participation has been disrupted by COVID-19. Eighty-three percent of these students reported feeling worried or sad about the impact.
“Loss of a season (or more) of sports and the ability to maintain conditioning, physical and mental health impacts, losing a key part of one’s identity and what the future may hold,” the authors wrote in the report. “Youth have lost connections to athletic programs with spring seasons cancelled and no other way to make it up. For talented athletes, sports can offer an opportunity to change their lives forever, which the pandemic has disrupted.”
Teens are staying positive
Despite the disruptions to their lives, teens are making an effort and finding ways to stay positive amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the survey, they’re doing things to keep them busy, such as reading, watching movies and listening to music. They’re spending more time with their families, Zooming with their friends, staying physically active and eating healthier.
Some teens have also begun to see some positives about life amid COVID-19. With classes online, 43 percent of students reported experiencing less school pressure, and 40 percent have enjoyed having a less-packed schedule.
What teens need from adults
A big part of what has helped teens stay resilient throughout this pandemic has been support from the adults in their lives — their parents, teachers, counselors and others. And without an end in sight, teens need even more support that is tailored to their specific needs.
Perhaps more than anything, teens reported their desire to stay in the loop about what’s going on and how it will impact their lives. They want to know what school will look like next year and seek information about how long the pandemic will last.
Of course, these questions don’t currently have answers. But, just like adults, teens crave new information. To minimize teens’ uncertainty and, in turn, their anxiety, the authors suggest adults “keep youth informed.”
Schools can provide new information directly to students and tailor it based on grade level, the authors suggest. And parents can help keep their children up-to-date on what’s going on in the world around them.
In this same vein, the authors suggest that parents can help minimize their teens’ anxieties by keeping them “appropriately informed” about their situation and financial status. In some cases, the authors suggest, parents can even engage teens in finding and utilizing support systems available to families, such as food pantries and various relief programs.
And in terms of assisting teens to cope, parents can monitor their own feelings and help teens build a routine and give them a sense of agency.
“For example, help youth identify ways they can contribute to a local cause or volunteer opportunity, or share examples of youth who are taking action to show that youth are not powerless and can make a difference,” the authors wrote in the report.
Staying busy is also key to maintaining emotional stability. So, the authors suggest that schools can try to engage youth in problem-solving and decision-making to give them a sense of control.
“Consider expanding opportunities for student representation on committees or work teams that address, for example, summer learning opportunities, back-to-school plans, school wellness initiatives, fighting hunger or other priorities in the school community,” the authors wrote.
Schools and community-based organizations can also help “relieve the boredom” by creating summer activities that are aligned with schools’ summer plans and start dates, the authors explained.
And when it comes to athletics, teens can use this time for skill-building and training. They can work out alone or in small groups, and they can study playbooks and videos to learn more about their sport.
“(A)dults can best support and guide youth by listening to them,” the authors wrote. “Rather than making flawed assumptions about what youth are feeling, trust teens to articulate what helps them cope the most, what they are not getting that they need and where they are feeling the most distress. Using these insights, adults can find more, and more effective, ways to help strengthen teens’ resilience, especially for those suffering the most.”
News & Content Manager
Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.